I’ll read anything by Philippe Claudel. His prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in. All four of his novels are very different, from the dystopian The Investigation to Monsieur Linh and his Child, one of the most heart-wrenching novels I’ve ever read. He’s a fine film maker, too: I’ve Loved You So Long has the same quietly understated quality as his writing. All this is to explain why I might feel delighted by the arrival of what looks like the kind of little gift book artfully placed at the till point at Christmas, there to catch you eye and your wallet.
Most of us are familiar with the almost visceral link between smell and memory. A sudden whiff can take you instantly back to a moment in your past in the way that nothing else quite manages. In sixty-three short chapters, Claudel summons up the memories – incidents, people, a way of life – which mean a great deal to him. All sixty-three are beautifully expressed vignettes: word pictures painted sometimes delicately, sometimes vividly. It begins with a bright shining childhood memory of acacia blossoms, gathered and rushed home to be dipped in batter then hot oil before quickly consuming them – fragrance on the tongue in a burst of joy, the very essence of spring. Turkish sunbathers slathered with Ambre Solaire transport Claudel back to his ten-year-old self and his mother’s anxiety about too much sun. The smell of a campfire comforts a lonely little boy missing his mother. A whiff of cannabis takes him to the apartment of old friends where his hosts pontificate about the ineptitude of François Mitterrand while smoking a joint. More poignantly, the smell of a much-loved uncle’s pullover fades until it can no longer be detected no matter how deeply Claudel buries his nose in it. Then there are the smells I’m happy to live without – pissotières for instance, redolent of ‘rancid urine, excrement, Cresyl and Javel disinfectants’ or Munster cheese, banished to the windowsill by his mother. Pissotières, aside it’s like a gorgeous box of chocolates but to gobble it up would be to spoil it. There’s a lovely note from Euan Cameron at the back thanking Claudel and his wife for introducing him to ‘just a few of their local parfums’. I’m sure they returned the favour by thanking him for his excellent translation.
Claudel’s final vignette is entitled ‘Travels’ and it’s the one that tapped into my own memories most strongly: the spicy smell of the Marrakesh souk at Christmas; Portuguese orange blossom after a long dark UK winter; and the tang of brown coal in the winter air of Istanbul. Are there smells that transport you back to a time or place?
Jacqui at the very fine JacquiWine’s Journal has also reviewed Parfums.